Deepwater

Posted on September 4, 2008
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The first time I went sailing, was a gentle loop around Sydney harbor in a 40 foot getlemen’s cruiser.  I was sick over the side after spending four hours resolutely looking at anything that would not move. Three days later and the world still seemed to be afloat, the squeamy nauseous feeling having made a home in my stomach.  I thought that was the end of it for sailing and I.  Why would you want to spend five hours on forty foot of unstable wood in the middle of an ocean pulling on ropes with some weekend hornblower criticising your every action only to return to dock and spend almost the same amount of time washing the boat down and putting her covers on? And yet one year on I have become a sailing addict, sitting stoically on the rail hauling on the sheets whilst winter waves slap my face and drench my pants and yet I couldn’t for a moment tell you what pleasure there is in it apart from some vague sense of satisfaction that comes from going nowhere in particular without a motor.  Needless to say, the sailors fascination is with the sea and though I have yet to venture forth far enough on to the salty brine to lose sight of land, I am fascinated by the idea. So stories of intrepid single handed trips round the ocean on tiny ships, facing the utter loneliness of the cruel sea for months at a time are high on my list of narrative tropes and they don’t come much better than this…

The scene is a grand seafront hotel in a West Country resort. The date is October 30, 1968. The master suite has just been vacated by The Beatles, no less, but tonight is occupied by a more unlikely hero. His name is Donald Crowhurst. He is a 35-year-old family man with a struggling electronics business, and his hobby is messing about in boats.

Tomorrow, however, this rookie sailor will embark on a lone, non-stop race around the world ? a feat that has defeated many more experienced yachtsmen, and remains the seafarer’s Holy Grail.

Outwardly, Crowhurst exudes confidence during the build-up to the epic contest, whose nine-strong field includes the redoubtable 29-year-old Robin Knox-Johnston, and which has captured the entire nation’s imagination. Privately, however, the rank amateur who has never previously ventured farther than the Bay of Biscay is waking up to the terrifying truth.

Carried along by delusions of glory and wealth, he has signed himself up for a task far beyond both his own limited yachting capabilities and those of his flimsy, unfinished boat.

On that fateful autumn night 38 years ago, Crowhurst grinned through a strained last supper at the Royal Hotel in Teignmouth, Devon, with his family and his unscrupulous cabal of backers.

Returning to his suite, however, he was tormented by a monumental dilemma. Having used his house as collateral for the costly adventure, he and his wife Clare and their four young children would be left homeless if he pulled out at the eleventh hour, or failed to complete the race.

Yet should he be fool enough to attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the Southern Ocean, a mariner’s graveyard of fearful storms and towering waves, he would almost certainly capsize.

Haunted

For almost four decades, Clare Crowhurst has been haunted by those final, angst-ridden moments with her husband. But she has never publicly revealed what passed between them as they conversed in pained whispers to avoid disturbing the children, asleep in an adjoining room.

Nor has she spoken of the bizarre events which unfolded afterwards. Events which have given rise to countless books, plays and films and posthumously transformed the public’s perception of Donald Crowhurst from a plucky storybook hero to an unhinged Walter Mitty ? and, worse, a liar and cheat.

This week, however, after she and her family wept through the preview of Deep Water, a new documentary about his strange and ill-fated odyssey, to be screened in cinemas next month, Mrs Crowhurst, now 73, broke her long silence to speak to the Daily Mail.

‘That last night together was frightful,’ recalls this remarkably well-preserved woman, who lives with two of her children in the faded little South Devon holiday resort of Seaton. ‘We were both in a terrible state. I had never seen Donald crying before, except when his friend was killed in an air crash, but he was really weeping. I held him in my arms and comforted him. Neither of us slept at all.

‘To Donald, taking care of the family meant everything, and he was desperately worried because that day Stanley Best [the sharp local businessmen acting as his sponsor] had him sign a last-minute agreement stating that the house would be mortgaged if the boat was lost, or he gave up the race.’

With hindsight, Mrs Crowhurst realises that this was her last opportunity to implore her husband to pull out. Indeed, unable to take the decision himself, she guesses he may have wanted her to make up his mind for him.

Instead, she bravely reassured him that they were young and healthy enough to recover from any financial setback.

‘I still feel so incredibly guilty about it,’ she says. ‘I think if I had just said “This is barmy! Stop it!” he would have listened. But I was scared that in five years’ time, he’d have regretted not going, and I would have stopped him fulfilling his dream.’

The following morning, Donald Crowhurst duly sailed off from Teignmouth; but he was not to ‘fulfil his dream’. Crowhurst became forever known as the Man Who Sailed Around The World Without Ever Leaving The Atlantic. And along with his reputation, he lost his life.

The poignant and compelling new film resurrects intriguing questions. What drove this game but hopelessly inept bathtub adventurer to sail to his doom? Why, when the odds became insurmountable, didn’t he simply return to port? And how did he meet his end? continue reading

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